Fannie Lou

This is a part of a series of brief posts I’ll be doing that feature women — as writers, creatives, world-changers, or everyday people who’ve made a difference, yet we’ve likely not heard of them.

Imagine going into surgery to have a tumor removed, only to wake and find out that you’ve also had your reproductive organs removed without your consent.

Imagine that you lose your job and get kicked off the land you’ve farmed for over two decades for simply driving to the county courthouse and registering to vote.

Imagine that while you were sick and tired of being sick and tired, you still fought for civil rights, even after being shot at and jailed.

Imagine being beaten so badly you suffered from permanent kidney damage.

Imagine the power and tenacity it took to be Fannie Lou Hamer, a black woman who took her rage and defiance and turned it into energy and actions that led to securing voting rights for African Americans and the creation of economic and community programs.

Imagine that, and act.


Oh, Be A Fine Girl — Kiss Me!

This is a part of a series of brief posts I’ll be doing that feature women — as writers, creatives, world-changers, or everyday people who’ve made a difference, yet we’ve likely not heard of them.

I am anxious to see the latest film, Hidden Figures, which tells the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three black women who were integral in the success of the U.S. Space Program. On that note, I found it interesting that the Women Who Dare knowledge card I drew today featured another hidden woman in history, in the related field of astronomy: Annie Jump Cannon.

Cannon had a strong academic background that included Wellesley, Radcliffe, and the Harvard Observatory. It was at the Harvard Observatory where she and other women (since labeled “Pickering’s Women” by science historians) that Cannon did some pretty impressive cataloging of stars, while taking existing classification systems and creating a more simplified one that “was adopted as the universal standard,” and led to the mnemonic device that many astronomers used, “Oh, Be A Fine Girl – Kiss Me!” According to Women Who Dare, Cannon classified over half a million stars.  And while she was the first woman to be awarded the Draper Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, the male-dominated group never did allow her membership.

Take some time to get to know Annie’s work and contributions to astronomy here at Annie Jump Cannon Biography, and  Annie Jump Cannon.

Strange Fruit

This is a part of a series of posts I’ll be doing that feature women — as writers, creatives, world-changers, or everyday people who’ve made a difference, yet we’ve likely not heard of them.

Surprisingly enough, even though I’m a Georgia native, I was not familiar with Lillian Smith. Hers was the first knowledge card I drew from my deck of Women Who Dare. Ironically, Smith lived just about 40 minutes from where I live now, as she spent the bulk of her life in Rabun County. Lillian was a writer and activist who stood openly against segregation and racism as early as the 1930s, saying that “Segregation is spiritual lynching.”

As I read more about Lillian, and I encourage you to do the same here,  I was moved not only by her bravery and activism, but also by the fact that she struggled with her desire to write creatively or “respond to her stern conscience and the intellectual voice of duty.” It appears Smith was able to satisfy both desires, as she wrote both creatively and with an eye towards social justice. While I’ve heard of her book, Strange Fruit, I’m adding it and Killers of the Dream to my reading list. Smith was one of the first white Southerners to speak and act against racism, and she openly lived with her lifetime partner, Paula Snelling.  I look forward to reading her work.

Special thanks to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, where I gathered much of this information.

I Dare You

2017 is going to be my year of intentionally sharing stories of and by women, and the majority of books I read this year will be by women. Why? Because I want to offer to the world the many unheard, under-shared, overlooked stories about women. In my over twenty year career in higher education, I’ve attended an inordinate number of commencements, workshops, and conferences.  Most recently, I’ve caught myself getting irritated — irritated not by poor speakers, but the same-old stories and quotes that are almost always about or by men. I want to add to the existing stories out there– the ones I’ve yet to even learn; the ones we certainly don’t hear enough.

So I challenged myself. If I had to give a talk tomorrow, what examples that highlight women would I turn to? My list was too short.  Even though I hold a few degrees, I never had a women’s studies course. So, it’s up to me to fill in the blanks. I’ve decided to start with the two decks of cards I have from the Library of Congress, Women Who Dare. Then, there’s the book my my dad gave me, The Last Word, which contains quotes by women — 324 pages of them. It is going to be fun. I’d appreciate it if you, reader, would share with me any resources you’ve used and find to be significant —  textbooks, biographies, reading lists, films, or syllabi.

I dare you to join me in this initiative. You don’t have to limit your focus to  women — but I do challenge you to read up and share success of those who are under-represented, yet fully a part of this multifaceted world in which we live. Share. It will enrich us all.  As Audre Lorde said, When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.

Ants in the Washroom

10960176_10202415076136507_3535643233750564748_oIt’s spring. How do I know? Not from the groundhog, but from ants.  There are ants in my bathroom and in the kitchen.  And last night I noticed a large, unattractive bug scurrying under the fridge that looked somewhat like a stink bug. There’s also a rather dainty and innocuous spider living in the corner of my bedroom. If, on the off chance I decide to clean, I will not squish him, but instead gently toss him outside. From my 20 plus years of living in the southern Appalachians, I’ve noticed my own signs that warmer weather is on the way, and these are some that have proven to be reliable.  Next, there will be wasps. After that, and maybe one more dusting of the white stuff, I’ll be able to sit in the sun and get my (much needed) Vitamin D the natural way.

I’ve recently become interested in signs, superstitions, and spells of southern Appalachia and have begun to research the many bits of folklore I’ve heard through the years, along with actual stories from friends and neighbors. Turns out, if I watch the smoke from my neighbor’s chimney close enough, I may be able to predict the weather. So, as I drive in to work, I take note of how the smoke hangs and if the birds are active, as both are alleged predictors of if the weather will clear or change.

I also think a lot about heritage and place. I live not far from Cherokee County, NC, and the Cherokee, before driven out, lived on the land I now make home. Turns out that I even have some Native American blood (thrown in with some Russian and Polish) in me. I sometimes wonder if some my paternal ancestors lived in the same spot I do now – why not? I think in the end we are all related somehow. And the Cherokee (or Tsalagi) traditions mixed with the Scots and Irish settlers to create the lore specific to this area. I want to know more about these stories and spells, and I also want to explore my own personal observations that evolve into a more personal lore or narrative. On that note, if you live in the southern Appalachians, I’d love to hear your stories – things passed down such as superstitions, beliefs, practices that you are open to sharing. How have you have kept or tossed aside any of these beliefs? If you are inclined to share, use the contact option above to send me your story. In the meantime, watch for ants in the house. They may very well be our angels of spring.


Carpool Red

FullSizeRender (1)In middle school I was part of a carpool.  Different moms would pile us into their cars and drop us off, which was way more cool than actually riding a bus.  Being a sensitive being, both then and now, I’ve never forgotten a look that one of these carpool moms gave me.

This mom, whom I’ll name Ms W, was probably in her mid-thirties (ancient to an 8th grader) and she had a passel of children, all with dark hair and lovely milky skin.  When Ms W picked us up there was always a rush of energy in the air.  It’s probably because we were running (more) than a tad bit late.  She also appeared to be wearing what she’d likely been able to grab the quickest. Sometimes  it was a flowered housecoat, other times a sweatsuit.  Her hair was rarely combed, and she wore thick glasses and no makeup.  As a middle schooler, my thoughts were mostly on how to survive the day.  Did I smell funny?  Would someone pass me a note that day?  Would I ever actually wear that skirt I was sewing in home ec? What if my period started?

But one day Ms W showed up looking quite different.  I mean significantly different, at least, to me.  Since I didn’t live with her or play regularly with her kids, I recall the shock on my face and the too dramatic praise of her appearance.  Wow, Ms W, you look beautiful today!  

Of course, I meant it as a compliment.  It was genuine admiration.  Yet the look she threw over the seat was one of pure irritation.  Her hair was in a fashionable slick bun, the glasses were gone, and she had on the most perfect color of red lipstick — not a true red, but more of a burnt red that highlighted her smooth, silky skin and made her dark eyes flash.  She was not grateful for my words.  No, she was pissed.  In that moment I knew I’d hurt her somehow, and I felt badly.

Now that I am Ms W I understand that look.  It’s the look that slips off one’s face when she’s rushed and frustrated.  It’s the look that says, yes, I could look like this all of the time, but I’m busy taking care of someone else’s needs. It’s the look that says, hey, I’m not a morning person and your praise only reminds me that I look like hell every other morning that I do not brush my hair or put on some lipstick.

About two years ago, when I regularly took the kids to school (I was the mom zooming in at the last minute, before the school officials locked the gate), I got locked out of the house.  I had to return to my son’s middle school wearing the very outfit I’d driven to school in:  a nightgown, mismatched sweat pants, slippers, a winter coat, and unbrushed hair and teeth.  Here I was, a working professional mom, showing up at the school office looking like a hobo.  I had to ask the showered and well-dressed woman in charge to please call my son to the front office so that I could borrow his house key.  It was at that moment that I realized Ms W’s situation.  If I had showed up everyday dressed the same way, and then showed up combed and lipsticked, I know someone would have said, Wow!  You look great, with all sincerity.  My likely response would have been hers — one of irritation, not gratitude, due to the morning rush and stress.

So I’ve let go of my confusion over Ms W’s look to me that morning way back in the 80s.  I also get what those fashion mags (that I rarely read anymore) mean when they write that with red lipstick, we don’t need a lot of other makeup.  There’s something about a red lipstick that brings out natural beauty — a blast of color that makes all the other stuff we often put on our faces unnecessary (which it really is, if I’m honest).  On weekends, lipstick and clean clothes are the only things I wear out.  And while there are thousands of shades of red lipstick, I’ve yet to find one called “carpool red.”

Why I Broke Up with Victoria

She misled me.

For years she’d supported me — childbirth, shifting hips, those late college days where I still looked stunning in bikini. But something changed. I think it began after she started getting all that attention. Not just from other women, but also men. It did something to her. What she’d promised: the support, to never be shallow or let me down, all fell apart.

This is how I found out: she lied about size, of all things. It was a fitting for our nuptials. She came into the  room with her measuring tape and had me lift my arms. We’d done this before; I had an idea of what to expect. Victoria was looking especially chic that day, wearing all black, her fake granny glasses setting off her pool-blue eyes, her silky hair in a chignon. She smelled vaguely of rosewater.  But as she pulled away, the tape a whispering snake, she said this: D. You’re a D cup.

I blushed. Not because this was true: It is not. I blushed because my Victoria, the one who knows my intimate parts so well, lied to me. The shock, the anger made me also sweat a bit, and I felt claustrophobic in the dressing room with its faux wood door. She gently shut the door on her exit. I was not as kind.

Dressed, I let the heels of my boots on the tile floor echo my rage. I told her it was off — everything — she was to come by the house and clean out the two drawers I’d given her — I wanted no remnants of her or our relationship. I threw the lacy black bra (who wears itchy lace anyway?) at her, but because the $150 bra was so lightweight the effect fell flat. Just like our relationship.

So instead of keeping all this a secret, I’m sharing. Victoria cannot be trusted. Steer clear. She’ll lie and take your money, her pale pink measuring tape hanging dangerously from her side.

Birthday Ho

imageI received many wonderful cards for my recent birthday. I, who rarely sends cards out on birthdays (I prefer an out of nowhere/surprise type card), was blessed to get so many moving notes. (My daughter’s made me cry. In a good way). But I keep coming back to the one that has made me laugh the loudest while also making me think about language — specifically the connotations of words and how some that are derogatory in one context are inclusive and loving in another.

On the front of the card is a woman in cowgirl garb, the expression on her face one of resignation but with mixed with a large dose of mischief. If I had to translate the look on her face, it’d be something like this: C’mon, now, you know we’re here for the same reason… The inside of the card reads, in plain Courier font: “honey, you ain’t the only ho at this hoedown! happy birthday!”

Context is needed here, as this is what this post is about, right?  My girlfriend who sent this card is one I’ve known over 20 years.  We’ve recently reconnected, and our visit was one that defied time — it was as if the silence beget by years of lives in other states, relationships, and respective professional positions evaporated.  We laughed. We drank, we ate, we (or she) got lost finding my house, as I’m sure I will when I go to hers.  We traded memories (something I find irritating when others do it, but gracious did we laugh and recall).  I wrote her a poem, recalling how she taught me the beauty of dancing alone, totally in the moment with no cares for those around.

Yet even though I find the card hilarious, especially when paired with the expression on the woman’s face, I could not stop the preacher’s kid (PK and teacher, if I’m honest) voice in me asking how I could be okay with that WORD? Ho!?!?!? But for the me NOW, the mature woman who knows when to disregard this voice, “ho” transforms into the most loving word of all. It conveys that a sister is speaking to another sister. It conveys the love and acceptance of a girlfriend of over 20 years calling me out for every thing I am (flaws and all), along with herself. And that’s the thing right there — that’s what the word does: it offers inclusion –– something we all yearn for, whether we admit it or not. She and I are both ho’s and we will both be at that figurative last hoedown together, cowgirl hats on with lots of glitter eye concealer. There may even be a bit of competition, but the most powerful message is this: you are not alone. What a gift to give, especially from one woman to another!  I / We are not alone.

Now crank up that music, ho, and let’s get to dancing!

A Shelter of Others

The clouds were high and scudding but dark.—Charles White

I read A Shelter of Others in late spring.  As a bibliophile, I appreciate the feel of a book.  I read plenty of them electronically, but there are books I must own, and I knew Shelter would be one.  Why? Read Lambs of Men, and you’ll see how White writes in lyrical prose that makes me wish he’d publish (more) poetry.  Fiddleback did a beauty of a book — its size is perfect for holding in your hand, and the cover is smooth, not glossy.  It simply feels good to touch.

I’ve had to let Shelter sit with me before writing about it, because it is the type of story that needs time to simmer.  After reading it, I immediately thought of a question I’d ask Charles, if I were to see him (note: friend disclaimer).  However, after mulling awhile, I’ve realized that my question is no longer a burning one, and may very well be moot.

As a poet, I read quite a fair amount of fiction and creative non-fiction, so I can speak to the fact that the voice Charles commandeers is one that is unique and eloquent.  I’ve seen comparisons of his work to Ron Rash and Harry Crews, and while writers such as those have most likely influenced Charles, he has developed a voice that stands firmly beside such talents.  Each sentence he writes paints a landscape — both psychological (one of the more prominent landscapes in Shelter), and physical.  It’s as if the storm in the narrative becomes a metaphor for the internal tornadoes we all suffer through.  How do we, flawed humans that we are, survive such?  Through shelter. The shelter of others.  The shelter of others whom we love(d), we’ve hurt, we’ve left, we’ve cared for.  The story in this book is one of connectedness and disconnectedness.  Characters come and go in one another’s lives, yet some connections remain even when the physicality is gone.  Shelter is a study of the complexity of human nature and relationship, written in elegant prose.

So what was that question I thought of initially posing to Charles?  Would there be another book, another one that gives more backstory to the characters in Shelter?  Yet as I sat with the story, it is no longer important to me that I know more about Mason and Lavada or Dennis, or Sam, or any other character in the novel, because the narrative of this lyrical novel holds enough for me to know that I already do know their backstories, as they reside in me, too.  All I want now from White are additional stories, and please, some poetry!

Anything Goes!

IMG_7101When I first started writing poetry seriously, I often discarded subject matter too quickly because I felt (incorrectly) that everything I wrote about had to be philosophically meaty or an elevated thought.  And while we often do find, after peeling a poem’s layers away, that there are elevated thoughts or philosophical points, we should never discard subject matter simply because it seems base or profane.  In fact, many strong poems have been written about or inspired by subject matter that would surprise you.  Take, for example, Stephen Dunn’s poem “The Kiss,” which was inspired by the following typo: “She pressed her lips to mind.”  What a wonderful epigraph with which to begin a poem!  On the other hand, Maxine Kumin found something as smelly and as mundane as horse manure to inspire “The Excrement Poem,” which, after a close reading, shows the beauty and uniqueness of the human experience, right down to our waste.

From July 19 – July 25th, 2015, I will be teaching a course “Anything Goes!” at the John C. Campbell Folk School.  Not only will we read Stephen Dunn, Maxine Kumin, Rodney Jones, and Sharon Olds (just to name a few), we will create our own poems, silencing our internal editors as to what can lead us to generating strong poems.  In between classes, we will interact with students who are painting, singing, weaving, and blacksmithing, just to name a few of the many crafts that are practiced at the Folk School.  If you are new to writing or at the intermediate level, please consider joining me and other folk school students to write in the lovely Appalachians of western North Carolina.  I promise that you will generate new work, and that you will also laugh at some point (not to mention eat well!)

Find more information on the Folk School, or sign up here.